Not To Be Believed

Like many of you I’m sure, when I heard yesterday that a USAir jet had crashed into the Hudson River, I steeled myself for a horrible story. So when the first images came up on our bank of TV screens here at TPM, a quizzical look came over my face as I saw an apparently fully intact


jet liner gently bobbing on the surface of the water. And with people more or less calmly emerging from the plane, apparently uninjured.

Now, as I’ve told you before, I’m a recovering aerophobe. And recovery is a very relative thing. So every time I’ve boarded a plane over the years and gotten that speech about how, after the plane goes down in the ocean, we’ll grab our flotation seat cushions, walk down the aisle and hop into the inflatable boats, it’s always been with a mix of terror and gallows incredulity that I’ve thought to myself: “Right.”

So when I saw this amazing turn of events, I started thinking: Has anyone ever pulled something like this off before?

Last night on the local news, a reporter said this was the first time in the history of American aviation that a pilot (presumably of a large commercial craft) has ditched a plane in the water and escaped any fatalities. And this article in today’s Journal similarly suggests this is an extremely rare feat.

Writes J. Lynn Lunsford …

Although commercial jetliners are equipped with life vests and inflatable slides, there have been few successful attempts at water landings during the jet age. Indeed, even though pilots go through the motions of learning to ditch a plane in water, the generally held belief is that such landings would almost certainly result in fatalities.

But I’m curious. Set aside no fatalities. Has a commercial jet ever been ditched in the water and not been a mass fatality event? Not a rhetorical question. Does anyone know the history on this?

As a separate matter. You may have heard that in addition to being a demonstrably impressive pilot, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the man piloting the plane yesterday, has a resume that makes him a legitimate air safety expert. (Talk about good luck matching the bad luck of a double bird strike!) He even played some part in developing the Crew Resource Management training for his airline that most experts say has played a real part in the improvement in commercial air safety over the last decade and one half. And he’s worked a number of NTSB crash investigations. (CRM, in very broad terms, is a leadership and collaboration training program that helps pilots and co-pilots make the right decisions in the seconds or minutes that make the difference between close calls and catastrophes.)

And one other little detail that adds to the drama, at least for me. The jet’s engines didn’t go out over the water. They went out over the Bronx. And there’s not a lot of open land around here. There was some brief discussion with the air traffic controller of trying to land at Teterboro Airport across the river in New Jersey. But Sullenberger apparently made the snap decision that that was not a viable option. And after managing to get over the skyscrapers in Manhattan and only a few hundred feet above the George Washington Bridge, he maneuvered the plane over the Hudson and down onto the water, having decided that that was the best option, from the very short list of choices that remained.

Late Update: In the spirit of everything is out there on the web, here’s a Jet flight blog that has a plotted map with the exact course of the USAir Flight. Amazing to look at, and appears to contradict what I’d read about the plane going over the Empire State building or any of the big Manhattan skyscrapers. If this map is right the plane was never over lower Manhattan and appeared to get out over the Hudson around the 130s or above in Harlem. At that point he was flying at around 1200 feet. Looking at the map with my very untrained eye, it looks like the pilot made a deliberate decision to use the Hudson as a runway just after the initial accident over the Bronx.

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